December 26, 2005
Guitar, Drum and Horn
After lunch, Jimmy proceeded to teach me the basics of guitar, at least the "C" and "D" cords. I was never any good at it, and never was able to improvise and go any further with the guitar. But, I never forgot those cords that Jimmy taught me. He died about two years ago—always one of my heroes—but I never saw him again. I don’t think Jimmy ever took his guitar playing to any great heights, any more than I did. But, he was another of the great winning cow hands who lived and died in South Dakota. I never heard a bad word about Jimmy McGuiness, and for a very good reason—there never was anything bad about him.
My next experiment with music came at a country dance, in the Briscoe family’s living room [when I was six or seven years old]. There were a lot of local cowboys there and a few girls—the Puts on His Shoes girls. I think there were two or three of them, as well as a few sheepherders, maybe the Homme girls (two of them), a couple of the older Briscoe girls, (probably Irene and Alice), and that was about it. Curtis Johnson had his fiddle and started to play, mostly Norwegian waltzes, Turkey in the Straw and such. Curtis played for awhile. Then, someone brought out an old button German-style accordion. When they couldn’t find anyone to play the thing, I volunteered. Of course, I couldn’t play it either. But, I pushed and squeezed that thing in company with Curtis Johnson’s fiddle. And, before long, the old accordion was producing some half way acceptable harmony. Of course, Curtis, who was a rather sour person anyway, would turn to me at every opportunity and inform me that I was playing in the wrong key. I was [just a young kid] and these people were coming to me to make requests of numbers they would like to hear. I guess they didn’t want to deal with Curtis, although, in all fairness, he was a very decent fiddle player.
Curtis Johnson had a brother who was only a couple of years younger than himself, Maurice Johnson. Not long after that dance, Maurice married Alice Briscoe and they lived the rest of their lives in a little shack just a few miles west of the old Briscoe ranch. They are presently, I believe, living at the rest home in Lemmon. One or both of them must be pushing 100 years of age.
There were also episodes where teachers conned me into playing the guitar and singing at school "programs". I cringe when I think of the torture inflicted on parents and labeled entertainment.
About this time of my life, a sheepherder—probably Tommy Escott—gave me a Jew’s harp. Now I believe, more politically correct, it is called a Jaw harp. You could alternate this gadget with the guitar and it sounded real Western. Then, someone gave me an old jury-rigged harmonica holder. If you put this wire contraption around your neck, it would hold a harmonica and you could play the harmonica at the same time that you were playing the guitar.
After school started in my freshman year of high school [in Lemmon, South Dakota], I started taking trumpet lessons from the band master, Mr. Beals. I needed a trumpet, of course, and I was able to locate an ancient "C" model cornet on sale at the undertaker’s. It sounded like somebody had died playing it too. It was only $8.00 and, yes, payments each month were acceptable. This turned out to be an unbelievably boring undertaking as Mr. Beals would only allow me to learn one note (properly) each week. At this rate, I computed that I would become a leader of one the big bands within probably ten years.
[For a time, in high school,] I was the official janitor of the American Legion Hall in Lemmon. All of the big names in big bands would tour the country and stop to play one night stands at all the whistle stops—Lemmon was one. Loren Towne, a big band leader who played lengthy engagements in New York clubs and New Orleans, was one of those band leaders and he was a great drummer. When I was working about the hall while they were rehearsing, I would talk music with him. He would tell me to sit at the drums, show me the proper moves and coach me along. When the dance started that night, he called me up on stage and turned the drums over to me. What a thrill! That is basically where I learned to play the drums. Then, about the second year of high school, I ordered a set of drums from Montgomery Ward and Company. This was, no doubt, the cheapest set in the country. I think it cost about $39.50. My mother ordered the set for me and we made payments of a small sum each month. I believe I made the payments from my earnings with the drums.
Beginning at the start of my sophomore (second) year in high school, armed with my set of dance band drums, I signed up for band practice. I loved my little snare drum and just beat the hell out of it, to the consternation of Mr. Beals. He then took me aside and pointed out the value of rests, pauses, etc., in the sheet music. Well, the music he gave me seemed to be absolutely full of rests. I couldn’t make any noise at all. Finally, after about a month of this struggling, Mr. Beals took me aside and advised me that I just did not have an ear for music and suggested that I withdraw gracefully from the band. I had made the acquaintance of some very practical friends while I was in the band. Taft Mitchell played trumpet, and his twin brother Ted, clarinet. Duane Newcomer played saxophone. Eddy McVey played trombone. I, myself, played drums, and we added pieces as opportunity and time allowed. The local chiropractor, Mr. Steel, had a band around town for years and he became our first piano player.
I arranged my first job of any importance with a new bar that had just opened on Main Street—the Oak Bar. The bar was owned by John Fields. He built it from scratch and, for the time and place, it was a beautiful establishment. I just walked in and asked Mr. Fields if we could play for him. At first he would not hear of it. But, since the weather was warm—late summer and early fall evenings—I proposed to Mr. Fields that if he would leave the big front doors wide open beginning about the time it became dark, I would fill the dance floor with dancers and keep it full. I asked for one dollar per night for each of us. I think we started with six pieces. The first night was an overwhelming success. We were so loud and everything was fast and catchy. People out for a walk or sitting on their front porches would come downtown to find out what all the excitement was about. I think we played there for two years, every night during the week. I was always able to book dances in surrounding towns on weekends. Probably the most important thing to come out of all this music, for me, was when Mr. Beals brought my name up to the band members, at practice, and told them, "There is an example of what you can accomplish with music. See what John Crowley is doing."
On summer vacations I played for dances. With “Crowley’s Rhythm Rascals” (the name of our band) came many interesting and sometimes dangerous excursions. The very worst night I remember was playing a dance in the dead of winter at the Hettinger, North Dakota, airport hanger. It was probably 16 degrees below zero outside, and there was no heat in the hanger. But, it was a good dance floor and we filled the place up. The big trouble was the cold. My hands were freezing and the drum sticks would keep flying out of my hands, the piano player and the trumpet player got falling down drunk and made terrible sounds, people were dancing in over coats, even dancing with overshoes on. That engagement probably would have qualified for a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column.
Another engagement that I couldn’t believe was in Marmoth, North Dakota. The owner of the Cave Bar, in Lemmon, had heard that I was a hot drummer so he had offered me $25.00 cash to play with his band that he employed in the bar. It seems that Marmoth was his home town and he wanted to rent the Legion Hall there and invite everybody in town to help him celebrate his "big wheel” status. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this guy’s band consisted of three pieces—one of which was an accordion and all three of these men were blind. Their being blind was of little significance as I had played with blind musicians before, but I think these guys were also deaf. It was one of those bitter cold nights, and cold in the auditorium. The music they played sounded like funeral dirges to me, and I couldn’t shake them out of it. It seems that it consisted of a lot of Russian music. It was the hardest $25.00 I ever earned in my life. I hope the mention of the blind musicians is not offensive to anyone. The truth is that I used to play with a piano player who was totally sightless, Clarence Doan. He was one of the hottest, jazziest piano players in the business.
I booked a fantastic dance at the Faith Legion Hall one time. They agreed to pay us $125 for the band for the night. Then my troubles started. It was almost 90 miles from Lemmon and no one wanted to make that terrible trip. Back then the roads were gravel and even longer than the road is today. Faith advertised this dance in the entire three county area as the biggest event of the year. We were supposed to be the biggest and hottest band west of the Mississippi. I wound up in Faith after this giant send off with a piano player, a trumpet, a clarinet, and drums. The Legion Hall was packed to overflowing, and all the people danced their little hearts out. People kept coming up from the floor and volunteering to help. By the time the dance was over, we had an eight piece orchestra. We were supposed to meet the Legion Officials at the restaurant after the dance to get paid off. They balked. They said that we were expected to have more musicians, so they felt they should not have to pay all that money. I asked them if anyone had requested a refund and whether anyone had complained. They sheepishly admitted that everyone had a good time and there were no complaints, so they paid up.
That covers just the bare essential of my musical life at Lemmon, South Dakota, with Thunder Butte as a backdrop.
December 22, 2005
Christmas at Thunder Butte Creek
Once, I remember Santa coming—I think it was on Christmas day. He was all dressed in the red suit, white whiskers, and red cap. I had no idea who he really was, but I was terrified of him. I recall lying in bed all excited one time, because Santa was going to come that night. Long before I could sleep, I heard jingling bells in the distance, then the sound of tap, tap, tapping on the roof. I lay there holding my breath—so anxious that I could hardly breathe. Later, I heard the door to the living room open and shut, and I knew that Santa had arrived from the North Pole. Of course, it was probably one of my older brothers jingling the bells and tapping on the roof with a tree branch or something.
Christmas [when I was a child] was not a big gift giving event. I usually got some new socks, maybe even a warm jacket. Once there were two or three oranges in my stocking and some nuts, maybe an apple. Doesn’t sound like very much, but those things were rare around Thunder Butte. I have often wondered how my folks kept a few pieces of fruit from freezing, when the bucket we used for drinking water was frozen solid every morning and nothing was warm until you could get a good fire started in the wood stove. Our blankets would be frozen stiff for about six inches below our chin, where our breath froze on the blankets. Most of the presents at Christmas time came from my Aunt Cynthia [in North Dakota]. She never missed sending large boxes of goodies, toys and new, warm clothing.
[Most people didn’t have much of anything in those days], and even if they did, the emphasis was more on Christmas stories and prayers. Many times, we sat around the big, wood burning heating stove and listened to stories of Christmas and prayers told by my mother and father.
I remember Christmas programs at the school house, where there was a decorated tree, with popcorn balls and stuff, and we kids had to perform. I had to play the guitar and sing songs. That was among my most miserable experiences, since I could neither sing nor play the guitar.
We used to cut a Christmas tree right on the ranch. I remember one year that we had a beauty growing on the cliff that fronted the house, about a quarter mile away. My mother usually strung popcorn with a needle and thread, making long strands that she then wound around and around the tree, from top to bottom. She would sometimes make popcorn balls by mixing syrup with the popcorn, forming it into balls, and drying it over the stove. The final touch was sticking candles to the tree branches and lighting them when it got dark.
In the upper grades, in grade school, we used to color pieces of paper and put a verse on them and exchange them with the other kids, for Christmas cards. I don’t think my parents or anyone [we knew] ever exchanged cards at Christmas time.
There was very little partying, probably because the snow was up to the horses bellies—it was tough to plow through it. Nobody was going out on a bitter cold, winter’s night and plow through snow banks with a team of horses to go to a Christmas program. [At the time,] I didn’t have any idea what the city kids did on Christmas.
I can hardly remember eating anything [for Christmas dinner]. I know that we ate, but it was not a memorable event. The only meal, or lack thereof, that I remember was one time when I got up in the morning and my mother was sitting at the kitchen table crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me there was nothing to eat. She heated some water and we drank it for breakfast. I know that sounds terrible, but it wasn’t. I didn’t hurt any. I felt very sad for my mother, but that was all. By the time noon arrived, she had figured out something and we [managed to eat] something.
The only other meals I remember were when I was in high school and living by myself. I got a twenty pound bag of corn meal for about a dollar, maybe fifty cents. I would mix the corn meal with water and fry it for breakfast. Other times, I would boil it and make porridge. Of course, there was always the baked corn meal bread. I think a twenty pound bag of corn meal lasted me for about a month.
I listen [today] to officials talking on television about school lunches, and children getting too fat, and soda machines at school. I always had a lunch hour in high school, but I can’t ever remember eating anything. Maybe it’s some kind of psychological block. I know this all sounds terrible, like I was some kind of deprived child or something, but that was not the case. I was happy. I didn’t want for anything. People couldn’t do any better. You didn’t expect things that weren’t realistic.